Errol Morris on John le Carre, ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ and Why the Doc Took ‘Forever’ to Make

Errol Morris on John le Carre, ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ and Why the Doc Took ‘Forever’ to Make

September 11, 2023

In “The Pigeon Tunnel,” Academy-Award winning documentarian Errol Morris explores the life and career of former British spy David Cornwell — better known as John le Carré, author of such classic espionage novels as “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “The Constant Gardener.” Set against the backdrop of the Cold War leading into present day, the 94-minute docu spans six decades. Archival footage, dramatized vignettes and Morris’ expert interviewing skills allow viewers to see and hear the late spy and author in a very candid light. (Cornwell died in December 2020.)

“The Pigeon Tunnel,” which draws on Cornwell’s bestselling memoir of the same name, is an Apple Original Films production. The doc will debut at TIFF on Sept. 11.

I read that Cornwell really liked “The Fog of War,” which was part of the reason why he agreed to do this project. Is that accurate?

It’s hard for me to remember why David Cornwell agreed to talk to me. I’m really glad that he did. I’m sure there were lots of reasons. People seem to like “The Fog of War.” I even liked “The Fog of War.” I really liked Robert S. McNamara. I often tell people he was my favorite war criminal. But he was someone that I actually really liked. I was moved by him. The interview with David is one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. I really liked talking to David and I found him to be very much a kindred spirit and perhaps the most articulate person I have ever spoken to.

What made him a kindred spirit?

All really great novelists, and he was a great novelist, are often in part philosophers. And certainly he himself created a kind of philosophy of history. Is there rhyme and reason to history? Is it all conspiracies, people pulling strings behind the scenes? For him? No. And I think this is what makes him a kindred spirit. For him, history is chaos. People at endless cross purposes with each other. No rhyme or reason to anything. The exploration of truth and the nature of history is at the heart of “The Pigeon Tunnel” — the book itself — and at the heart of the movie that I made.

You are a skilled interviewer who manages to get a lot out of people who don’t necessarily want to disclose information. How do you do it?

I don’t have some kind of fixed agenda. I’m not trying to break them or to get them to spill the beans about some issue. I think that’s what makes, at least for me, interviews very different from interrogations.

You began interviewing Cornwell in 2019?

Good lord. It seems like a long time ago. Yes, probably.

Did COVID slow down the production or edit of the project?

Everything took forever with this project. It did extend over a fairly lengthy period of time. I don’t think we are to blame. I know that one is always, myself included, looking for someone to blame but the project was on again, off again. At one time it was going to be a series of five films, then it was going to be one film. It really took forever for people to just agree on the fact that we were making the movie.

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